- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

HOUSTON — They were only little things, but there were a lot of them. And when added up yesterday, they became one very big thing for the Washington Nationals.

That’s the best way to describe the Nationals’ 7-3 loss to the Houston Astros, a game that easily could have been there for Washington’s taking but instead turned into another loss amid a flurry of botched plays and poor decisions.

“That’s baseball,” reliever Joey Eischen said. “The team that doesn’t make mistakes wins the game.”

The Nationals made too many mistakes on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. There were two official errors — committed by shortstop Royce Clayton and left fielder Alfonso Soriano — but there were plenty of other gaffes that didn’t show up in the box score.

How about the RBI single to the opposing pitcher? The inadvertent kick of the comebacker to the mound, spoiling an easy double play? The runner doubled off third base after straying too far on a grounder to first? And the just-missed swing that could have tied the game and capped another impressive comeback?

This is the fine line between winning and losing.

“We had a lot of chances, period. We just couldn’t cash in,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We’re giving away too many runs early in ballgames.”

That certainly was the case yesterday before a crowd of 31,662. Though they took a 1-0 lead on Marlon Byrd’s fourth career leadoff home run, the Nationals wasted a couple more opportunities to extend the lead against veteran Andy Pettitte and then handed the Astros six unanswered runs in the next four innings.

It began with Soriano getting caught too far off third base on Ryan Zimmerman’s second inning grounder to first. That rare 3-5 double play ended the inning, spoiling a scoring opportunity.

Then, the real calamity in the bottom of the third, an inning Robinson later called “disastrous.”

Houston wound up scoring three runs on Washington starter Ryan Drese, but none of them was earned after a series of costly mistakes and bad bounces.

Clayton began the inning with his first error of the season. A wild pitch from Drese moved runner Adam Everett to third, and then Pettitte drove him in with a single past a drawn-in infield. After retiring the next batter, Drese got Willy Taveras to hit a comebacker up the middle that looked like a sure inning-ending double play.

Drese, though, stuck his right foot out and kicked the ball past an unsuspecting Clayton at short. It was a natural reaction by Drese, but one that upset his manager.

“What good can come from that?” Robinson said. “Once in a blue moon, you might be able to deflect it and stop it. But bad things can happen. The other thing is you could injure yourself. It’s not a smart play.”

Said Drese: “If I could take it back, I would. But it was just my reaction.”

The kicked ball came back to haunt the Nationals, because two batters later, Morgan Ensberg doubled down the left field line. Soriano booted the ball for his first error of the season, and the Astros wound up scoring two runs.

“It was an inning that kind of jumped up and bit us in the butt,” Clayton said.

Houston added another in the fourth, thanks in large part to a hit-and-run single by Brad Ausmus, hit right where Clayton would have been standing.

With Drese limited to 81 pitches in his first start since undergoing shoulder surgery last September, Robinson was forced to again go to the bullpen early. Eischen entered in the fifth and proceeded to give up two more runs on two hits and two walks, and suddenly the Astros were comfortably ahead, 6-1.

That was familiar territory for the Nationals, who have held the lead in only four of 55 innings this season.

“We’re always coming from behind,” Robinson said. “And we’re always having to score more runs than we’re really capable of doing day in and day out.”

The Nationals managed to come back to win Saturday night, and they gave it another try yesterday, putting two on and bringing the tying run to the plate in the eighth inning. But Brian Schneider, called in to pinch-hit over both Daryle Ward and Marlon Anderson, just missed connecting on a 2-0 pitch from Houston reliever Dan Wheeler and flied out to center, killing the rally.

“It was a good pitch to hit,” Schneider said. “I put a good swing on it. It’s just a matter of inches. … If I get that [bat] head out just a little bit more, I hit it hard somewhere.”

Instead, Washington was dealt a loss and now faces an important series finale today. Not only would the Nationals like to win so they could return home with a respectable 3-4 record, they would like to get a solid outing from John Patterson after watching their starters average a scant five innings through the season’s first week.

“We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” Patterson said. “The first time through the rotation, we didn’t do a great job.”

Asked how badly his club needs a well-pitched ballgame, Robinson said: “As bad as a barefoot man needs a soft shoe.”

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